Remade: The Importance of Problem-solving and Repair

By Henry DeGrand

STE(A)M, Project-Based, High-Tech, are some of the many curricular buzzwords surrounding the educational world today. At the request of major tech companies schools can now adopt curriculums that include software programming, web design, and robotics. I am not debating the value of these skills as they will become increasingly useful in the future, rather, I am writing this to advocate the importance of integrating a new, old set of intuitions back into our educational institutions: motor skills and repair.

At one point in US public schools, vocational skills were taught as legitimate courses. In the latter half of the 20th century these courses—trades, woodshop, home economics—have vanished from most public school curricula. As someone who was born well after this trend, and as someone who by some standards, shouldn’t require vocational training given dominant economic trends, I feel robbed of a valuable set of skills. The ability to understand and create physical structures evades most education programs, depriving children of another avenue for practical creativity, and a relevant, wealth-building skill. The latter of these applications deserves special scrutiny, as ability to work with building materials will not only build wealth in the form to producing products to sell, but also (perhaps more importantly) will enable the learner to repair and restore valuable objects in both practicality and sentiment.

I cannot stress the importance of teaching the skill of repair. In a consumer-fueled business climate that heavily rewards the production of competitive and unique goods, the skill of repair has become an endangered species, and the skill of designing for reparability, extinct. As we become more distanced from knowledge of reparability, we become more dependent on others for what needs repairing. No matter what, this relationship between repair and (inter)dependence will remain, since if any of us were to have full knowledge of how to repair everything in our lives, it would occupy the vast majority of our time. However, as we become more dependent on tools we do not understand, which are damage-prone beyond our grasp, your laptop becomes less of a good and more of a service. As the Internet of Things becomes more a part of our daily reality, the requirements for repair of our tools will increase—in my view—far beyond our ability to do anything about besides pay a specialist to fix it. All the while, we still rely on non-technological goods (such as chairs and clothes) which we do not have the shop skills to fix either, nor the immediate impetus to repair them. Our low-tech items are not repaired, but rather, replaced. This direction of our relationship to produced objects sheds light on an uncomfortable question: can you really have ownership without maintenance?

Why is maintenance then so underrated? The act of maintenance allows one to build problem-solving skills, apply creativity, save money, and is incredibly more environmentally friendly than producing an entire other object (let it be known here, there are several glaring exceptions to this rule.) While this question has definitely been tackled by many economics dissertations, I hypothesize that the act of maintenance is so eschewed by dominant forces is that it follows the Tetris Work Ethic: your errors pile up but your achievements go unnoticed. An effective repair job is largely unnoticeable, keeping something that already exists, taking up time that could have been used for something more self-expressive. This is why – across many industries – development is seen as flashier than restoration.

So take stock of the things in your life – how much of it can you repair? How much of it do you know how to repair? How much of it do you think you can figure out how to repair? I am advocating not only for a greater reparability of the world around us, but for STEM Education to teach creative problem solving at multiple scales.

Figure 1: Conceptual Sketch of Design Lounge

My background is in Urban Studies and Educational Technology, and as I was learning them concurrently, I wondered what the link was between understanding the built environment and technology-focused learning. Over years of praxis I come to understand that the difference between solving a problem with a computer and a problem within a neighborhood relates to the spatial scale and the amount of persons involved in the solution. Obviously, problem-solving within a neighborhood context presents various layers of complexity, more so than a personal object. Since the act of problem-solving is dependent ultimately on one’s own patience and self-efficacy, teaching those skills as part of projects is essential for students to perform repairs not just on their tools or communities, but within themselves as humans. The opportunity to live this philosophy of self-efficacy through project-based learning is one of the reasons I am delighted to serve at Minneapolis’ North High School.

North High School serves the Minneapolis neighborhood from which it gets its name. At one point it had the highest concentration of woodshop equipment in the state, allowing students the option of a high-quality vocational education. For over a decade, however, the woodshop has been out of commission due to budget cuts and curriculum changes. A grant from the Jay & Rose Phillips Family Foundation of MN has allowed North’s STEM Academy to focus its efforts on setting up a makerspace in the woodshop area; the space will host equipment and activities to allow students to tinker with technology and built materials.

My role is to convert the defunct woodshop into a working space that accomplishes these educational goals. So far, my greatest achievement to date has been mapping the space to pave the way for future programming. One of the biggest problems with the space was that it had been used as a dumping ground for unused materials from other classrooms. Creating a diagram of the existing floor plan, collaborating with custodial staff to move unnecessary physical obstructions and adjusting the room’s floor plan to open up the space so it may serve students better, is a crucial step towards creating a spatial programming that can enable students to focus on creative projects and improve self-efficacy with technology.

While the task of building an equitable education will involve more than one person tackling small-scale physical details, I find that cleanliness and the aesthetic arrangement of equipment are an important step in having students take ownership of a space that is ultimately theirs. While the floorplan and the programming will change as the students take ownership of the makerspace, its initial arrangement will demonstrate its potential, and it is important to set the bar high.

Figure 2 – The first of our new power tools: the Ryobi band saw. Also pictured: a set of 4 soldering irons and a label maker.